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Skookum Butte

Teams of volunteers with "Passport in Time," a cultural heritage resources program sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, are working alongside the USFS to restore the Skookum Butte fire lookout through a multi-year project in the Lolo National Forest. The structure, which was built in 1928, has been unoccupied since 1960.

The hike to the Skookum Butte fire lookout was short — only a tad beyond a mile. I figured it would take more time to drive to the trailhead from Missoula than hike to the top.

I wasn’t quite correct.

It took about half an hour to drive the 22 miles to Elk Meadows Road 451 just west of Lolo off of Highway 12. The Forest Service road was in great shape, and it took about another 20 minutes to reach the Skookum Butte trailhead.

The first thing we noticed were the black flies and mosquitos. The rainy spring seemed to give them a shot of adrenaline, and they were voracious. Luckily, the volunteers who were working on renovating the lookout had set up a base camp, along with about five types of various bug sprays. After dousing ourselves with chemicals (don’t judge me) we took off toward the top.

The hike starts off in an area burned in the 2017 Lolo Peak fire. Heat from the flames caused some of the soils to become hydrophobic, which means they repel water and make it difficult for plants to become re-established naturally. However, in other areas the wildfire raced through quickly, and those lightly burned locales already are seeing significant regrowth in the long grasses and low shrubs.

A short way beyond the burn, the trail gently starts its uphill climb. We stopped to take in the sea of beargrass, with their white and yellow flowers, which only bloom under certain conditions. This was an amazingly banner year. The purple lupines were in full form, and with white yarrow and blue asters, it seemed like every color of the rainbow was showing.

Then the 1,000-foot elevation climb started in earnest. The legs weren’t bad, but the lungs were burning as we stopped occasionally — OK, often — to take in the magnificent views of the Bitterroot Mountains. And more honestly, to recover from the aerobic activity when you’re hiking what my phone app said was the equivalent of 83 floors.

We broke out of the forested area to find a tumble of talus rocks — the Idaho Batholith granite, to be precise — with the 1928-era Skookum Butte fire lookout perched high above.

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Although it’s tempting to take the direct route by scrambling up the talus slope, it’s clearly difficult and dangerous. Instead, the trail winds around the base of the rocks on the hiker’s left. Watch closely for where the trail veers off to the right and a faint route through the talus is visible.

After scrambling like a mountain goat, we were rewarded with a spectacular 360-degree view from the 7,215 elevation on the Montana/Idaho border. 

And that 1.25-mile hike? It took only about an hour. Or so.

But it’s not just the landscape view (and the hike) that are breathtaking. The lookout tower is in the midst of being renovated, with workers earlier this year stabilizing the structure. They’ve replaced some of the logs, and are working on the windows.

Skookum Butte Lookout

Volunteers with the Passport in Time organization work in tandem with the U.S. Forest Service to renovate and rebuild the site of the Skookum Butte lookout in Lolo National Forest on Monday. The lookout has been empty since 1960 and crews are working on a multi-year project to restore the structure to its former state.

Take a moment and imagine the life of a lookout employee. You’d have a bed, a desk, and a chair with glass insulators on all four legs to protect you in case lightning makes a direct hit (ponder how they came up with that solution). Your closest neighbors would be chipmunks, and chances are you’ll get few, if any, calls on the crank-up telephone.

But bask in the solitude. Then apologize to your knees and head back down the trail.

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